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Cycling and Covid-19: what London needs to do now, and when the lockdown lifts

London Cycling Campaign | 9th April 2020

We are facing an unprecedented crisis. Right now, the number one priority is to stem the spread of Covid-19 in order to protect life. In order to do that, we need to enable key workers to get to and from work safely, and support everyone else to take their daily exercise in a socially distant way, without out putting additional pressure on the NHS. Improving conditions for cycling can help with both these goals. Longer term, we also need to start thinking about how these measures can support the city moving towards a low-carbon, low pollution future, following the steps we’ve laid out in our Climate Safe Streets report

Why does Cycling matter right now?

We believe cycling can play an important part during the crisis: cycling is an ideal form of transport for many keyworkers and for essential journeys, because of its convenience, health benefits, and ease of social distancing. Cycling enables such journeys to happen over longer distances, such as for commuting to keyworker roles in London.

  • Cycling, walking and jogging as exercise are healthy for mind and body, and easy to do while maintaining safe distance from others. Many people who struggle to walk or jog for exercise also find it easy to cycle.
  • Cycling allows heavy loads to be transported over longer distances, such as for essential deliveries or volunteer efforts, without adding to pollution or road danger.
  • Enabling cycling and walking should therefore be part of public health strategy at all times, but particularly right now.
  • We need to learn from global cities who are supporting active travel during this crisis, keeping people moving while enabling social distancing and safe journeys. We believe the approaches taken by many Dutch cities, as well as Bogota, Mexico City, Berlin and New York are good*. They are not just enabling people to keep cycling where possible and necessary, but are increasing safe provision for cycling and walking during the crisis with temporary physically protected cycle lanes and other motor traffic restrictions.
  • The more we restrict people cycling and walking, the more we push them to less suitable alternatives – onto crowded public transport, into cars and/or into smaller, more crowded public spaces.
  • Closing public parks and green spaces impacts most on the poorest in society, who are least likely to have access to private outdoor space that they can use instead.
  • Rather than banning cycling where there are social distancing risks or perceived problems, TfL and the government should be working to mitigate those risks.

Short-term action during the crisis

We believe there is the opportunity to do more over the coming weeks, as the crisis plays out. London’s authorities should in the short to medium term:

  • Make temporary cycle lanes on main roads. Like other cities*, London should be rapidly scaling up emergency provision of safe cycling routes, using cones or other temporary measures. Routes that provide access to hospitals for NHS staff should be priorities. It has also been shown that narrowing traffic lanes reduces driving speeds, which would help address the dangerous driving we are currently seeing in London, particularly since police enforcement is limited. Similarly, where pavements are too narrow (including on shopping high streets), coned-off lanes could be for walking, or walking and cycling.
  • Seek to enable responsible behaviour rather than closing public spaces. The more public spaces are closed, the more we risk crowding into others. While current government guidance holds, behaviour should be enforced wherever possible, rather than more spaces closed.
  • Remove through traffic from as many residential streets as possible, using temporary barriers. Many pavements are too narrow for proper social distancing when walking for exercise or essential journeys. Temporary ‘low traffic neighbourhoods’ would enable the largest number of people to maintain social distancing without risk of road danger, by using the whole width of the street. It would also enable people to get peaceful, healthy time outdoors without crowding into parks. This approach has been mooted by many including Harriet Harman MP.
  • Reduce the speed limit for motor traffic to 20mph for all roads across the entire city as an emergency measure, as recommended by health experts and professionals involved in the “Lower the Baseline” campaign. We have seen significant speeding problems across London since the crisis began. Action, including enforcement, to eliminate such behaviour is urgently needed to reduce pressure on the NHS and other emergency services through increased road collisions.
  • Use cycling to help communities and keyworkers. It’s a socially distanced, healthy and efficient mode of transport. The cycle community can help here – with the NHS volunteering programme, with vital freight supplies via cargo bike couriers and even with transporting people who can’t cycle. We can work with stakeholders, companies and authorities, along with LCC and community volunteers, to find ways to safely and rapidly enable keyworkers to get access to cycles and support them in cycling safely, as well as to move goods safely and efficiently during the crisis.
  • Suspend push buttons at crossings – as many other cities are doing, this would be useful for both pedestrians and those cycling to avoid touching buttons as a potential source of transmission. Other cities are also rephasing signals, as should be done here to favour walking and cycling wherever possible and suitable.

After the crisis: business as usual, or shift to a low-carbon future?

We have just ten years to meet the Mayor’s declared target to make London zero carbon. A massive shift away from motor vehicles and towards cycling (and walking and public transport) is essential to decarbonise London’s transport sector. Do we want to return to pre-crisis, or possibly even higher, levels of motor traffic? Or create a new baseline for walking, cycling and traffic levels as we emerge from the crisis?

Right now, roads are quiet enough for many new people to cycle for essential journeys or exercise. Air pollution has dropped and we can hear birdsong on our streets. We are seeing more children and families cycling on our residential roads than ever before. We need the benefits of a city with far, far fewer cars, not because we are in lockdown, but because walking, cycling and public transport dominate our streets as part of a thriving society.

The sudden changes to our lives have made many more of us aware of the toxic air Londoners usually breathe when our roads are choked with motor traffic, and how unsafe most people feel to travel actively. And this should be a catalyst for action: we cannot allow a return to a car-sick city when the Covid-19 health crisis is over. We want streets to return to the sounds of people chatting, but not the sound of cars.

To achieve that, we have to treat climate change as a crisis. It is heartening to see the incredible response to a national crisis currently across councils and communities. But since most London authorities have declared a climate emergency, surely a similar urgency and scale of response is warranted once this pandemic is over?

We have long needed a coherent, cross-department, cross-borough approach on climate in London. And rather than treating electric cars as a silver bullet, we need decisive action to reduce and restrict all motor traffic to make active and sustainable travel the main modes of transport – see the recommendations in our Climate Safe Streets report.

As the crisis does recede, we will need to consider a number of issues as soon as possible: Is there a risk of motor traffic levels being higher than before, as Londoners continue to steer clear of public transport? Will those newly returned to cycling carry on as motor traffic levels rise? Will parents continue to ride with their children? Or, will more people work at home more often, and how will that impact transport? Will shopping patterns change, with more home deliveries? 

Actions as the crisis ends

The UK government, the Mayor of London, TfL and borough councils should:

  • Seek a sustained reduction in levels of private motor traffic, pollution and carbon emissions. Urgently put into place public plans and targets for motor traffic reduction, using data available from before and during the crisis, to identify priority opportunities to change streets permanently for the better. Include smart road-user charging, axe major roadbuilding schemes, roll out employee parking levies, and enable more flexible and homeworking arrangements.
  • Return space and priority to active and sustainable travel modes, rather than private motor traffic. Where possible, turn temporary motor traffic restrictions into trial and then permanent schemes, such as coned-off cycle lanes and low traffic neighbourhoods.

The Mayor specifically should instruct TfL to:

  • Reinstate the ULEZ, congestion charge and other suspended mechanisms to restrict and reduce motor traffic as soon as any lockdown is lifted. Reinstate the welcome programme of improved vision standards (Direct Vision Standards) for lorries. Londoners who may have shifted to cycling during the crisis should not be deterred by increased motor traffic and road danger to (or even above) pre-crisis levels.

The Mayor, TfL and all London councils should:

  • Ensure lower car use than pre-crisis levels at keyworker sites, hospitals and major employment centres such as council offices. Reverse free car parking at hospitals as soon as possible, and instead reduce the availability of car parking, add safe cycle routes, change distribution methods, consolidate deliveries and improve opportunities for greater flexible and homeworking to avoid traffic levels rising.
  • Rapidly implement the eight recommendations in our Climate Safe Streets report, produced before the crisis and for the expected Mayoral election. These will be vital for the Mayor, TfL and the boroughs to achieve on top of those listed above, if we are to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

* A US academic, Tabitha Combs, is currently compiling a list of different responses by different cities during the crisis. Find it here.